Interviewed by Jonathan Gomez,
Victoria Manna and Melissa Rose
Podcast by Simon Brown
Steve Schwerner, 79, has been an activist for over 60 years. He has marched against segregation, protested the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, done draft counseling during the Vietnam War, taught classes on the Civil Rights Movement, helped start the Park Slope Food Co-op. Now he claims only to be a “professional grandpa” and says he’s sidelined by a pair of bum knees. But get him talking and it’s clear his fires are still stoked.
“I’d like to see a real commitment for this country to work towards economic equality, treating people equally, giving everyone a chance, giving everyone a real chance,” he said in his oral history with Jonathan Gomez, Victoria Manna and Melissa Rose who were doing an independent study on Journalism, Oral History and Political activism with Prof. Jessica Siegel. He welcomed them into his apartment on the edge of Prospect Park.
For him, activism is part of who he is and how he has lived his life. “What are the options?” he said. “I could live a nice quiet life and not talk to anybody, listen to my jazz and read some books. And so what have I accomplished?”
Schwerner was brought up in a family of activists. His mother helped to start the teachers’ union; his father was a lawyer who defended people who were evicted from their homes. He attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. While he was a student, he helped organize a demonstration against a segregated bowling alley in Zenia, Ohio. “We chanted, held picket signs in the sunshine,” he said. “The owner came out and said he’d change the policy. We thought—it’s a simple as that. You march around in the sunshine and that’s it. It turns out it isn’t that easy.”
Schwerner’s younger brother Michael (Mickey) was one of three young Civil Rights workers who were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964 in Meridian, Mississippi. Mickey Schwerner and his wife Rita had joined CORE and had gone down south to register African Americans to vote and to try to set up Freedom Schools, alternatives to the segregated schools that black children were forced to attend. Mickey, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman had gone to investigate a black church that had been bombed. They were arrested for speeding and taken to jail. Their bodies were found 44 days after their disappearance, shot at close range and buried in an earthen dam. It would be 41 years before anyone was charged with their murder.
“There’s no question in my mind,” said Schwerner, “that if Mickey and Andrew Goodman weren’t white, the case wouldn’t have gotten all the attention it got. At the memorial service that was held in New York City, Stokely Carmichael came up to me saying ‘This is the 17th funeral I have gone to of people involved in the Civil Rights movement.’ But no one knows the names of the various black people who were killed in Mississippi because it was the norm. . . . But the fact that there were two white New Yorkers who disappeared, it made it a major incident in American history.”
Steve Schwerner went on to direct Queens College counseling center and later was the dean of students and later professor at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he also dj-ed a jazz program for 25 years on a local radio station. “The first time I heard Charlie Parker, I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to play such beautiful music,” he said as he showed photographs of some jazz greats he took.
After he retired from Antioch College after 27 years, he moved back to Brooklyn with his wife Nancy to be close to their two children and four grandchildren.
“When we moved to Park Slope in the 1970’s when I worked at Queens College, I joked it was considered a semi-slum. It was red-lined…no bank would give us a mortgage. They didn’t lend money to people buying property there,” he said. “When we moved to Park Slope, there was a bar on every corner; now there is a sushi bar on every corner.”
Like for so many people, the election of Donald Trump was devastating for Schwerner. “We have a long way to go to have a just society and after the election it is clear, we have a lot of work to do.”
As he said in his oral history, “The movement for justice is invariably two steps forward and one step back…maybe two steps back. …You’re not human if you’re not working to make people’s lives better.”